LivingTravelHow to see the Northern Lights in Iceland

How to see the Northern Lights in Iceland

There’s a reason the Northern Lights rank so high on travelers’ wish lists – it’s far from easy to find. But the amount of work you put into researching and planning your trip will pay off when you find yourself enjoying an incredibly large sky filled with dancing lights away from the crowds.

Iceland is a great place to see the Northern Lights, but there are a few things you need to know before embarking on your adventure. From the camera gear you’ll want to invest in and the apps you’ll want to download to the best places to see the show and tours of the Northern Lights that really pay off, consider this your comprehensive guide to seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland.

What are the northern lights?

The Northern Lights are a seasonal phenomenon that occurs in and around the Arctic Circle. (There are also southern lights, which happen, you guessed it, in the southernmost points of the southern hemisphere.) When solar flares shoot charged particles into Earth’s magnetic field, the particles interact with atoms and molecules in Earth’s atmosphere. The color of the aurora borealis indicates what types of atoms and molecules are colliding (oxygen or nitrogen).

Common colors of the aurora borealis include blue, pink, yellow, green, and purple, but if you spot a particularly strong solar flare, they can appear orange or white. Be careful: the Northern Lights won’t look like the photos with the naked eye, most of the time. A faint show of the Northern Lights can even appear as a slightly nuanced cloud floating in the sky.

When can you see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

The Northern Lights are known to appear in mid-August in Iceland, but the strongest shows arrive in September and March (due to the seasonal equinoxes). There is little to no chance of seeing them during spring or summer, because the sun hardly sets during this time period. The sun sets before 6 p.m. M. From September to March, which makes the optimal conditions for the Northern Lights.

How to see the Northern Lights from Reykjavik

It is not common, but sometimes you can see the Northern Lights from the capital of Iceland. Locals have been known to turn off all the lights when this happens, so everyone can enjoy the show.

For the best seat in the house, head to Hallgrímskirkja, a tall church at the top of the city. It’s only open until 9pm, but in the deeper parts of winter the sun sets around 4pm, which means there’s a slim chance you’ll catch them before the church closes. The view from the top of the church is impressive, encompassing all the neighborhoods and ports of the city.

What to wear while hunting for the Northern Lights

It’s all about the layers! It’s going to be cold, so start with a warm wool base layer. From there, find a warm sweater (I’ve found turtlenecks a great option) with waterproof pants. Complete with a waterproof jacket, scarf, hat, gloves, and warm socks and you’re almost done. Waterproof boots are one of the most important parts of the outfit. Iceland’s weather is known to be completely unpredictable and you never know when you will find yourself walking through the snow.

It’s better to be too hot and able to remove layers than to be too cold, especially when venturing out on your own.

Best Northern Lights locations in Iceland

The mainland of Iceland is a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle, but you can still see the Northern Lights from anywhere on the island. They have the ability to appear anywhere, but whether you can see them or not is another story, thanks to light pollution. Fortunately, Iceland is still a very remote country, which means that much of it is uninhabited or is home to small towns.

But if you are looking for a perfect location for photography, check out these places:

  • Grótta Lighthouse – If you’re staying in Reykjavik, Grótta Lighthouse is a great place to see the Northern Lights at the most northwestern point of the capital city. It is a 10 minute drive from the city center and is easily accessible by taxi or bus and is quite easy to walk in good weather.
  • Thingvellir National Park – It is incredibly easy to find an empty spot in this national park. Two tectonic plates shoot up from the ground, giving you a spectacular setting for your stargazing. But be careful – there are many cracks in this area that are easy to miss in the dark. Follow the marked trails and be aware of your surroundings.
  • Threngsli – Iceland’s van rental company Happy Campers cites this as a wonderful place to see the Northern Lights. Located near the town of Thorlakshofn, the flat area creates a fun landscape to photograph the phenomenon.
  • Seljavallalaug Pool: You have probably seen this pool on Instagram. Surrounded by mountains and punctuated by an old hot spring house, it’s the kind of scene that makes people impulsively buy plane tickets. But be careful: the water is not as warm as the other hot springs that you will find throughout the country. With that said, it is an amazing place to see the Northern Lights, just be prepared for a little hike to get there. It is also one of the oldest swimming pools in Iceland.
  • Ásbyrgi: This place is located in the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon in the north of Iceland. This area is known as the “Capital of the Elves” and, according to legend, it was created after the god Ódinn’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, struck its hooves to create the horseshoe-shaped crater.

What to bring when hunting the Northern Lights

The most important thing is to bring yourself, but here are some other things to keep in mind:

  • Snacks – There is no exact way to know exactly when the lights will appear, so bring plenty of snacks and something hot to drink. There is nothing worse than being alone with a rumbling stomach.
  • Extra Layers: When you think you have enough layers, bring another one, just in case. And don’t forget an extra pair of socks – waterproof event boots have the occasional slip.
  • Your Camera Gear – If you plan to take photos, organize your gear ahead of time. Not only can you not tell when the Northern Lights will appear, but it is difficult to know how long they will stay. The last thing you want to do is waste unnecessary time trying to find all your gear and miss out on the show.

Best Apps to Download and Websites to Check

It is not as easy as walking away from the city lights at dusk. Do your research to make sure you leave as informed as possible with the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights.

  • Aurora: The Aurora app will send you push notifications when there is aurora activity in your area (which you can configure in the app). This works for anywhere in the world, not just Iceland.
  • Vedur is the local weather website best known for keeping track of the country’s unpredictable weather changes. Not only is it important to keep an eye on the activity of the Northern Lights, but it is more important to know when a storm is coming. The website also shows cloud cover, which is an important factor in being able to detect lights.
  • Soft Service News : This service shares Northern Lights predictions based on your location. If you are looking for real-time updates, it offers a monthly notification membership for $ 4.95 a month. Every time the Northern Lights appear near you, you will receive a text message, a phone call, or an email (depending on your preferences) to alert you. A small price to pay if it helps you see the Northern Lights on your next trip!

Tours that are really worth taking

If you are not renting a car for your time in Iceland, there are many tours that will take you to the Northern Lights. Most of them will also pick you up at your hotel.

  • Northern Lights By Boat, Special Tours – Get off the coast of Reykjavik with a guide who will share the science behind the Northern Lights, as well as some mythical stories about the phenomenon. The best part about this Northern Lights By Boat tour is that the guides will take care of the photography for you, so you can enjoy the moment.
  • Northern Lights Snowmobile Tour – This tour will take you to the Langökull Glacier on your search for the Northern Lights. You’ll also have a monster truck ride to the glacier cabin before taking off on your snowmobile. Don’t worry about staying warm – Iceland’s mountaineers will provide you with a warm jumpsuit for your trip.
  • Game of Thrones Northern Lights Tour: Arctic Adventures will take you on a 3-day tour in the footsteps of your favorite Game of Thrones characters. You’ll visit off-the-beaten-path spots on the Golden Circle and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This tour is much more than the Northern Lights, but it is the added benefit at the end of your exploration.

How to photograph the Northern Lights

Your iPhone’s camera won’t be able to do the trick for this task. But with a little preparation, you can capture the lights in all their glory.

  • Bring a tripod – to capture the clearest photo possible, you will need a completely still surface to shoot. Be sure to bring a tripod for your Northern Lights photography adventure.
  • Consider using a release wire – once again, stillness is the key. That means even with the push of a button you can shoot your photo. To eliminate this risk, invest in a cable release, which allows you to press a remote button to activate your shutter; no contact with your camera is required.
  • Remove all lens filters before shooting: You want to stay away from anything that can blur your shot; make sure your camera settings are set manually and that there are no camera filters interfering with your shooting.
  • For portraits, use a flashlight – when shooting in low light, your camera will pick up the strongest light source. When looking to take portraits in front of the northern lights, you are working with two subjects: people and the northern lights. During a Northern Lights tour in Finland, I learned a quick trick: bring a flashlight. Set a long shutter speed and shift the light towards the subjects several times during shooting. This will help the camera to capture light from portrait subjects, as well as the Northern Lights.
  • Focus on your camera settings – this might be the hardest part of photographing the Northern Lights. Since it has to be incredibly dark for them to appear, it naturally creates a difficult environment for taking photos. For your best chances, set your ISO between 800 and 3,200, according to photographer Dean Tatooles, who shared his advice with PetaPixel. Set your shutter speed between 15 and 30 seconds (the longer you have, the more star movement you will capture). Set your aperture between f / 2.8 and f / 5.6 and you’re ready to start taking some photos.

Great hotels for the Northern Lights

There are impressive hotels all over Iceland, but some of them come with an added benefit: an excellent view of the Northern Lights.

  • The Five Million Star Hotel: The Five Million Star Hotel is a series of transparent bubble hotels near Fludir in southern Iceland. Located on land owned by a local farmer, each of the bubbles is named after a woman in her family. These bubble rooms are totally isolated from any form of city lights, which means you can catch the northern lights from your bed.
  • Ion Hotel: Ion Hotel is not only known for its striking architecture, it used to be a geothermal power plant, but also for the geothermal pool located just below the main building. It is the perfect place to enjoy the Northern Lights. The hotel staff will even call you throughout the night if the lights appear. It is located near the historic Thingvellir National Park, less than an hour’s drive from Reykjavik.
  • Hotel Rangá: The Hotel Rangá is so well known for being in a privileged place to see the Northern Lights that they have their own live broadcast. You will also find the Hotel Rangá Observatory on the property: a folding roof with two astronomical telescopes,
  • Villa Lola on Airbnb: If Airbnb is more yours, check out the Villa Lola apartments. These houses are located in the north of Iceland, near the second largest city in the country, Akureyi. The location right at the base of Sulur Mountain is ideal for stargazing and Northern Lights photo shoots. It gets better: If you like winter sports, this area is perfect for dog sledding, kayaking, or heli-skiing. Fun fact: this region is also home to the northernmost 18-hole golf course.
  • Traustholtshólmi Yurts – This small area is one of Iceland’s best kept secrets. Located near the mouth of Iceland’s largest glacial river, Traustholtshólmi is technically an island on an island. Accessible by ferry a short distance from Keflavik Airport, you’ll find a handful of Mongolian yurts dotting the area. There is nothing more inviting than seeing the Northern Lights from a campfire, after all.

If you’ve beaten this extensive guide, consider yourself an expert at spotting Iceland’s Northern Lights. Your next task: go out and find them!

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